On London Spy

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It would be of no surprise I would enjoy this series, as I had been a fan of the series, MI-5 (Spooks), prior, so certain elements felt familiar and quite understandable. This was a real cracker. In the same way that for Doctor Who, Torchwood was aliens and time travel meet sexuality, this mini-series is like MI-5 meets homosexuality, without appearing provocatively like Torchwood. It is very much a “a relationship drama refracted through the prism of the spy genre.” I found this quote from episode 2, to be superb:

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“I haven’t read many books. I haven’t been to many places. But I have fucked a lot of people. And there’s one thing you just can’t fake. Inexperience. The body’s tense when it should be relaxed. It hurts when it should be fun. And it’s dirty when it should be clean. I don’t care how smart you are; your muscles can’t lie. I’m talking about feeling his inexperience as clearly as I can feel this glass. Do you follow me, Frances? I can see you do. So I know for a fact you’re lying.”

Both Ed Horcroft and Ben Whishaw are quite fantastic, though much more credit goes to Wishaw, in particular the scene in which he tested for HIV (Getting tested for HIV shouldn’t be considerably terrifying, for the record, especially as it is responsible). I rather loved this quote from episode 3, Blue:

“Some of the people we need to speak to… care very much about appearances. They look at the cut of your suit before they listen to what you say. It’s not about wealth. It’s about a set of signals. They require a lifetime of study, which is precisely the point. Wealth can be acquired in an instant. Tonight we must play by their rules.”

For the most part, there are a lot of parts of Danny as a character – impulsiveness, or recklessness, a drifter, bumbling around – that just doesn’t appeal to me what so ever. It might also be his characterization as more feminine (“feminine intuition-like” trait) also provided a much further disconnect. Alex/Alistair Turner, on the other hand, seemed someone much more like how I view myself – reserved/private, thoughtful, refined.

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There is a sense of unbelievably about going up against “all intelligence agencies,” because I nearly laughed at the idea. It’s a hugely ambitious remark, but also makes for a hole in the story because it never goes anywhere.

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One of the things I noticed was how Scottie’s story within the agency, and subsequent expulsion, coincides with Danny’s relationship with Alex, as stated in episode 2:

Scottie: This is the spot where my career as a spy came to an end. I was a spy… a long time ago. In a world very different to this one. I was recruited at Cambridge. I said yes partly because it wouldn’t be a normal life, with regular hours. I was desperate to avoid the five o’clock home time… whilst not being bohemian enough to imagine life without a proper profession. Not very patriotic motives, I suppose. But they rather liked that about me, an utter lack of idealism. Romantics make unreliable spies. It was my third year with MI6. I was travelling back to London on the night train. A handsome man entered my carriage… sat opposite me. The tips of our shoes touched. Our eyes chanced. He asked the most mundane questions in the most exciting way. When we arrived at Paddington, I went to the gentlemen’s and waited in a cubicle, door ajar, hoping. I can’t tell you how happy I was to see him. It meant that I hadn’t been wrong. And that for the next 15 minutes or so, I wouldn’t be alone. After all these years, prudishness runs deep. The next day, I was approached by a Soviet operative… who described how the Soviet Union welcomed “men like me”. “Under Communism we’re all equals.” And once I’d completed my mission here, in a country that would always hate my kind, I could set up home in Moscow and be free. Some “men like me” actually believed that lie but I was not one of them. So, all that remained was the blackmail. I’d be exposed… arrested… disgraced.

Danny: You told your bosses you were gay.

Scottie: That’s a wonderful wrong answer; the option did not exist. No, I explained to my section head that I’d been approached by a Soviet operative and I detailed the nature of the blackmail. He asked if the allegations were true. I admitted that I’d made a mistake with a man and that the operative probably had evidence of that mistake. But it was only once. An act of disgusting madness. “I’m not a homosexual! And I’m not a traitor! Hard for them to believe the second statement when they knew that the first was a lie. So, I proposed preposterously: they employ someone to follow me for the rest of my life – photograph my every move – I would never touch another man. I didn’t discover until later that it hadn’t been a Soviet operative, it had been an internal investigation. You’ve heard of a mole hunt? Well, this was a fag hunt, which they saw as more or less the same thing. Her Majesty’s Secret Service had had its fingers burnt by one too many queer spies but my prompt confession, saved my life. I was moved from MI6 into what was then named Ministry for Transport, where I was little more than a pen-pusher, whispered about by those in the know. Out of gratitude and fear, I kept my end of the bargain. And for 11 years, I did not touch another man.

The events Scottie was speaking of likely were referring to when Sir John Nott-Bower, Commissioner of the Police of the Metropolis, had been weeding out homosexuals in the British goverment beginning in 1952 or 1953. By 1967, the Sexual Offenses Act of 1967, which decriminalised homosexual acts between two men over 21 years of age in private in England and Wales, had passed through Parliament. It is this dialogue that truly hangs inconspicuously in the background of the story.

The ending was deeply saddening. When the moment Alistair said, “His name was Danny,” to Frances, I cried. It hit me in the best, and worst, places, simultaneously.

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As for a second series of the show, creator Tom Rob Smith has said:

“The BBC have asked [for a second series] and my instinct is that it probably shouldn’t continue,” he told The Guardian. “If you’ve lost the two central relationships, who would you be spinning Danny through? I preferred Charlotte and Ben going head to head, I don’t know whether they’d have the same spark as friends.”

And:

“Once Danny had learnt that his love story was real – which was the key question to answer, for me – and re-evaluated his relationship with Scottie through this world, it was whether to close everything off or decide he’d found someone new and gone on this new adventure.”

I really, really find this agreeable, actually, because you don’t want a show to last too long and subsequently end on a lower note than when it began. London Spy is just perfect as a single series, and no more.

According to the CultBox review of Episode 1:

Ben Whishaw (Spectre) is Danny, an impulsive, bored drifter; he’s described in the episode as a romantic, and although he has something of a troubled past, the evidence of this inherent romanticism is right there in the first few minutes.

Danny spends his days lugging boxes around a warehouse and his nights wandering London’s nightclub scene, but when his path serendipitously crosses with handsome stranger Alex on Westminster bridge, he’s unable to let go of this chance meeting.

‘Sometimes you have to take a chance, right?’ he asks Alex. ‘Otherwise… how d’you know?’

Whishaw is an excellent actor who can lend an endearing warmth to any part he chooses to, and Danny is no exception; he is the beating heart of London Spy, and he is immensely likeable.

Ed Holcroft’s Alex, on the other hand, is much colder, almost robotic. Alex will not talk about himself; he keeps an (alarmingly) pristine wardrobe, his flat is utterly spotless, and he is wooden in his interactions with Danny, at least at first.

To call an actor wooden would usually be the ultimate insult, but it’s not a case of Holcroft failing to convey Alex’s emotions – it’s just that Alex is a man with a steely grip on his self-control. Holcroft actually does a very good job of portraying the pain and confusion behind the blank face. His Alex is strange, awkward, mechanical.

Given the title of the series, Alex’s true profession is no secret to us, and with that knowledge in mind, watching Alex become a part of Danny’s world is a little like watching an alien arriving fresh from Planet Espionage to spice up an aimless wanderer’s life. Their relationship is odd, but it’s charming in its oddity.

Considering that this is only the first episode of a five-parter, London Spy certainly does a good job at ratcheting up the tension. When Alex abruptly disappears, Danny can’t accept that their relationship is over. From this, the episode builds up to a sinister cliffhanger which is enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. It’s an opener filled with promise, from the gorgeous shots of London to the already-complex characters (should we trust Jim Broadbent’s Scottie as implicitly as Danny does?).

London Spy is definitely one to keep under surveillance.

According to the CultBox review of Episode 2:

It’s a quick and effective way of entering Danny’s world again; after an update on the events of last week’s opener, there’s little time wasted before the audience is enveloped once again in London Spy’s distinctively sleek, sinister atmosphere.

It soon becomes apparent that some time has passed since Alex’s death. Danny now has a wall filled with newspaper clippings and notes related to all that has happened; he’s become totally obsessed with unearthing the truth.

But Whishaw’s performance bears no hint of cold calculation, even though Danny is essentially a determined man on a mission. Instead, Danny is vulnerable, obviously still grieving and missing Alex terribly; there’s an incredibly touching scene early in the episode wherein Danny struggles with his tie, only to be overcome with a memory of how Alex used to do it for him.

He cries, and this tiny scene has a strong bearing on the rest of the episode – no matter the situation Danny finds himself in, and no matter what people say about his relationship with Alex, we remember that the young man really did love Alex, and still does.

This episode tackles the past of Danny’s elusive older friend Scottie. There are some strange contradictions, here; Scottie is gravely insulted at the insinuation that Danny may not trust him wholly, and yet in the same rant he reminds Danny just how little Danny actually knows about Scottie.

“What do you know about me?” Scottie demands, scornfully, when faced with Danny’s perceived distrust – something which seems to go entirely against his point. For all Scottie’s apparent friendliness, his admission that he has spied on people for a living makes him one to watch.

Danny’s attempts to unravel the truth lead him to delve into Alex’s past, and directly to Alex’s childhood home. Here the episode sinks from a quietly sinister atmosphere into the realms of downright menace as the sleek modernity of London Spy merges with the eerie thrill of a Gothic horror.

David Hayman, in particular, as Alex’s (alleged) father, is creepy enough to make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end. It’s here that we realise just how deep Danny has entangled himself in a web which seems to have no end. Alex’s world was full of liars and, undeniably, danger – the end of the episode sees Danny get threatened by an unknown source, and thus sets up the immediate thread for the third episode.

London Spy is all about the little moments – the crossword puzzle which Danny scrawls ALEX ALEX ALEX all over, the lingering shot of a crucifix hanging lopsided on the wall. This episode is a bit slower than its predecessor, but it’s still highly engaging, and the performances are fantastic.

A change in pace is understandable; the mystery at the heart of London Spy is worth drawing out.

According to the CultBox review of Episode 3:

The episode opens with a great piece of symbolism, as Danny dreams of Alex cramped up and twitching, locked in the trunk.

The claustrophobia is almost tangible, and it represents exactly where Danny is at this point in the story; he’s utterly trapped by what seems to be an appallingly cunning set-up. He gets dragged in for questioning regarding and even to our ears his excuses and explanations sound weak and unconvincing.

Two things soon become apparent in this episode. The first: the walls are rapidly closing in on Danny, and he is most certainly running out of time. The second: Danny himself is a much more important player in this game than perhaps he initially seemed.

Of course, he has always been important in the sense that he is the main character; he was Alex’s lover, and our eyes and ears for the purpose of the mystery. But before this episode, it seemed (to me, at least) as though Danny was essentially an ordinary person who had become caught up in a world of deceit and murder through his involvement with Alex.

This episode changed that perception. Whatever is going on, it is very personal. “They built that attic out of my past,” Danny tells Scottie, after he has been aggressively questioned by the police.

Putting this together with the one solid piece of information we gain from this episode – that Alex had discovered something which the combined intelligence agencies did not want in the open – and it becomes apparent that everything which has happened since Alex’s murder has been for a single purpose: to incriminate Danny by building a perfect, personally-designed scenario in which he appears utterly guilty on all counts.

In his quest for the truth Danny pays a visit to the sublimely creepy Rich (Mark Gatiss), a man who by his own admission is used to getting what he wants, and a man who very much likes to play by his own rules. His manner flits, slick and sly one moment but with a nastier raw brutality the next. He’s something of a puppeteer, but whose side he is on is anyone’s guess.

If there’s one criticism for London Spy, it’s that it tends to get a little lost in its own daydream. There is a sense of the story deliberately dragging its heels from time to time. People like a mystery, but they like answers too – hopefully next week’s episode, the fourth of the five, will begin to provide some.

All the same, the performances never fail to engage, and this week it was good to see Danny and Scottie working as a duo to try to uncover some truths.

Scottie is an intriguing character, and given his past, his presence helps to shed some light on Danny’s attempts to unravel the web – and anyway, Ben Whishaw and Jim Broadbent are, as ever, a great presence onscreen.

According to the CultBox review of Episode 4:

“The end of lies.”

So says Scottie in the fourth episode of London Spy. This week, the mystery is kicked up a gear as answers begin to materialise. Tom Rob Smith’s BBC Two drama has spent the past few weeks dangling suggestions and red herrings in front of us like a cat with string, but this week’s penultimate instalment sees an end (mostly) to that. It feels as though hwe are definitely approaching the trut.

There’s a sense of the pace picking up, and it’s welcome; there’s a sharp scene in which Danny realises what the code to unlocking Alex’s USB is, and after all the plot’s twists and turns, seeing the lightbulb moment in his eyes is immensely satisfying to watch. It feels like it has been a long time coming, but Danny solving the code feels worth it – you can appreciate the work which went into the build-up.

From then on the plot can move forward considerably. Alex’s old professor Marcus Shaw (Adrian Lester) is brought in to help decipher the contents of the USB, alongside Scottie’s old university friend Claire (Harriet Walter). It transpires that Alex was working out a way to essentially de-code lies; something which could, by all accounts, bring the world crashing down around them.

The lengths to which they go to in order to avoid being eavesdropped upon as they work out Alex’s findings emphasise the sinister atmosphere, but it is nice to see Danny in a makeshift team for once, with people who are there to help.

This episode harks back to the tenderness of the drama’s opener more-so than the two previous episodes. We see Danny’s journey take him on a different path, initially, when he re-visits the places which belonged to him and Alex over the course of their relationship. He begins the process of saying goodbye, or at least tries to.

Whishaw, yet again, provides a deft kick to audience emotions as he buries his face in Alex’s t-shirts, or sits by an open fire and reminisces similar scenarios with Alex, with nights spent under the stars and talk of soulmates (admittedly slightly ruined in terms of romance by Alex’s stubbornly rational analysis).

It’s touching and poignant to remember the reason that Danny got tangled up in this mess in the first place – that he was truly in love with Alex, even if everyone he meets now seems determined to convince him that he did not know him at all.

It’s not just Danny’s relationship with Alex which carries an undercurrent of emotion – his relationship with Scottie is also explored, and there’s an affectionate protectiveness between them which is enough to make your heart ache by the end of the episode.

Professor Shaw states, after examining Alex’s discovery, that he’ll be surprised if the four of them last a week with this knowledge. This prediction turns out to be only too accurate, and the episode ends with Scottie’s loss, a tragic blow to Danny. Will he crumble, or will he be even more determined to solve the case in Scottie’s honour? Danny has grown immensely as a character over these four weeks; something tells me it will be the latter.

With one episode of London Spy left, there are plenty of loose ends to tie up. We are confident that it will deliver.

According to the CultBox review of Episode 5:

The final instalment had a lot to live up to; over the past four weeks, we’ve watched as Danny and Alex fell in love, as they were ripped apart in horrifying circumstances, and as Danny searched desperately for any hint of truth as to how his lover died.

We’ve seen him grieving, numb, frightened, furious – a complex and ever-changing cocktail of emotions portrayed, beautifully, by Ben Whishaw, in a series which never relented on throwing out yet more secrets and mystery.

This episode more than any other highlights just how much Danny has changed over the series. In many ways, the aimless dreamer who bumped into Alex on Westminster Bridge has grown up a vast amount.

Danny is now pro-active, determined, with a steely resolution and a refusal to let his unknown assailants intimidate him into submission. When boxes are left in his garage in the dead of the night, he goes straight out into the darkness to examine them. Danny is not going to be cowed; that much is clear.

And yet, when reflecting on his memories of Scottie, Danny retreats to the edge of the Thames to sit and stare at the water for a while and get some time alone with his thoughts. In moments like this, it is apparent that the events in which he has become entangled have not changed him too much. Danny is still himself – he’s just a tougher version.

After his parents (threatened, naturally) become involved in stealing Alex’s research from him, Danny’s determination does seem to waver a bit – attending a HIV support group, he spills all, and when asked what he is going to do next he simply replies, “I’m going to do nothing.”

But this is Danny, and if London Spy has taught us one thing, it’s that Danny does not give up. His journey takes him back to Alex’s childhood home, to the family we met in the second episode. And here, at last, some light is shed on the situation – and the truth of Alex’s end is revealed in all its grim horror.

We learn that the woman established to us as Alex’s mother was not in fact his biological mother – that was his nanny – but both loved him. We learn that his apparent mother brought Alex up to be a spy out of frustration and anger over her own lack of opportunities. And finally, we learn exactly why Alex died; because his research into de-coding lies was used against him – and when, under threat of death, he promised to abandon his research and abandon Danny, he was proved to be lying. And so they killed him.

Special mention must go to Edward Holcroft and Charlotte Rampling for the flashback scene in which we see the events leading up to Alex’s demise – Holcroft’s panic as the suffocating Alex and Rampling’s descent from dignity into terror as she realises her son is going to die are both heartwrenching.

There’s no ‘happy ending’ as such in London Spy; Danny has still lost his lover and his best friend. But he knows the truth now, and the last scene sees Frances join him in his fight to let the truth be known.

It’s not exactly a happy ending, but it’s a deeply satisfying one, and it feels true to the atmosphere of London Spy to end the drama with Danny still on a quest of sorts. All in all, it’s an excellent end to a riveting drama.

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2 thoughts on “On London Spy

  1. Pingback: On Iron Man | The Progressive Democrat

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